Joe Penza: Prospective biochemist to archivist

Published 4:19 pm Thursday, May 14, 2020

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Joe Penza, archivist at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, could be on a completely different career path, had it not been for a course he took in college.
Penza attended Brown University to study biochemistry, but ultimately realized he loved studying history of the sciences. This would eventually lead him to becoming the archivist he is today, which is someone who manages and preserves historical records.
“I was going to be a biochemist, but I quickly discovered I had no taste for lab work,”  he laughed. “I took one course on the history of science, and that really just set me on a whole different life path. I fell in love with the history of science, medicine and technology, the philosophy of science, sociology of science, really just studying science in any other way I could, I was fascinated by it. I liked studying it from a humanities perspective.”
Penza described this fascination with wanting to know more about the scientists, and how to describe what they are doing to regular people not in the field, like an interlanguage.
He graduated from Brown University in 2003.
After his time there, Penza described working in call centers for the next few years. During this time, he discovered he had a knack for records management, with files, data, digitizing, etc. This continued until the financial collapse of 2007 when he lost his job at the bank he was working for. He ended up dispatching tow trucks, third shift for AAA. This is when he decided to go to graduate school.
“I was looking at archives, and thought I like records, I like history, and I thought, you know archives are where I want to be,” he said.
Penza said many programs for archivists were either focused around library sciences or public history. He said he wanted something interdisciplinary like what he had at Brown. For his degree there in the history of science, he had to develop it himself, develop his own curriculum and proposal to get it approved. He found something similar when he pursued his Master’s Degree at East Tennessee State University, where he graduated in 2011.
During this time he also began volunteering with the History Museum of Mountain Home. He said he has been there since 2009, he has been on the board since 2012, and is also a past president of the board.
“Doing medical history at the VA, I fell in love,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I decided to stay here, because we have such an amazing medical history here in Appalachia.”
In 2011, Penza began working at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library as a library clerk, before becoming an archivist part-time in January 2012. This is now full time.
In describing his work, he said that while some archivists like to be away from the public, he is quite the opposite.
“I’ve always said, being a public servant has a specialty,” he said. “First and foremost, you have to be a people person. My primary job is serving the community. I think that’s my favorite part, is interacting with individual people, whether it’s putting a hold on a book. What I really love about working at the library is how integrated my work is with the library. Most archivists are down in the dungeon by themselves all day.”
He said he loves his work with both, noting he enjoys being the guy to talk to when people come in wanting to know about history.
During the pandemic, his work has not ceased. He has continued working with the library, even sharing historical memes from this day in history.
When he isn’t working at the library, Penza is also a father and skateboarding lover, participating in various events. He serves as the Skateboard Club Coordinator with the P.E.A.K. Mentor Program, which helps children impacted by family members facing addiction.
He hopes during this time that people will document their quarantine journeys, and hopefully take up journaling so people can see this moment in time preserved.
For those needing help in history or genealogy, Penza said he is your guy. You can email him at

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